Feast Day : December 14
Name meaning: “God is gracious”
Also known as: San Juan de la Cruz
At five-feet-two, John of the Cross was small in stature but “great in the eyes of God,” as his friend St. Teresa of Avila described him. He was especially devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and had numerous experiences of her during his life. John was born Juan de Yepes y Alvarez in Fontiveros, Old Castile, Spain. He was the youngest of three children. His father had been disinherited for marrying beneath his station, and died when he was an infant. John was raised by his mother, Catalina Alvarez. He studied at the Jesuit school of Medina, but was attracted to the Carmelites, a Roman Catholic order founded in the 12th century by a group of hermits on Mount Carmel, Israel, and devoted to the ancient prophets Elijah and Elisha, who once lived on the mount. At 21, John entered the Carmelite monastery of Medina del Campo, where he was given the name of John of St. Matthias. After profession, he wanted to be a lay brother, but instead was sent to the Carmelite monastery near the University of Salamanca. He was ordained a priest at age 25. He became unhappy with the laxity he saw in the order, and worked toward reform with his confidante and friend, Teresa of Avila, who was in her fifties when they met and formed their friendship. Together they founded Carmelite monasteries and advocated disciplinary reforms. They enjoyed a deep and mystical correspondence. Teresa had been given permission to establish a stricter order of Carmelites, and to found two reformed houses of men. She told John he should be the first to carry this out. He founded the first Discalced Carmelite monastery at Duruelo and adopted the name John of the Cross. (The term “discalced” literally refers to being barefoot; however, discalced monks in modern times may wear sandals, rather than shoes, as symbolic of their stricter observance.) The Discalced Carmelites were strongly opposed by the original Carmelites. From 1571 to 1572 John served as rector of a new Carmelite college at Baeza. He then became confessor at the convent of the Incarnation at Avila, serving until 1577. He was ordered by the provincial of Castile to return to Medina but refused. He was kidnapped by unreformed Carmelites, who imprisoned him in a nearly lightless cell in Toledo when he refused to abandon his reforms. He spent nine months in his cell, which had a tiny, high window. John stood on a stool in order to be able to read his offices. He was severely beaten. The beatings at first took place every evening, then three times a week, then on Fridays only. John would be led to the refectory and forced to sit on the floor to eat his meager meal of bread and water. Then he would be made to bare his shoulders. The monks would file by and scourge him with whips. The scars remained for years. The story goes that on two occasions his jailers saw brilliant light shining from his cell, which vanished when they entered. It was believed that Jesus and Mary visited him. According to lore, Mary helped him to escape. She appeared in a radiant vision on the night of her feast and told him his trials would soon be at an end. Several days later, she showed him a window by which he would make his escape. John unscrewed the lock of his door (said to be loosened by Mary) and quietly walked past the guard. He took only the mystical poetry he had written. He tore a blanket into strips and made a rope, which he used to climb down out of the window shown to him by Mary. John hid in a convent infirmary, entertaining the nuns by reading his poetry. One of John’s fervent prayers was to be granted three things: not to die as a superior; to die where he was not known; and to die after having suffered a great deal. His prayer was realized. In 1579 John became head of the college at Baeza. In 1581, he became prior of Los Martires, near Granada. In 1582, Teresa died and dissension broke out among the Discalced Carmelites. John, who favored a moderate policy, became vicar provincial of Andalusia. He did not get along with the vicar general, who removed him from authority and had him disgraced. He was sent to the remote friary of La Peñuela, where he spent his time in prayer and meditation. Meanwhile, efforts were under way by his opponents to have him expelled from the order. John became ill and was sent to Ubeda in 1591. He suffered dreadful treatment for three months, and died on December 14. John wrote his famous mystical work The Spiritual Canticle, while in prison. Shortly after his escape, he wrote The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Living Flame of Love and his most famous work, The Dark Night of the Soul, a continuation of The Ascent of Mount Carmel. These works describe the soul’s mystical journey toward God, and detail three stages of mystical union: purgation, illumination and union. Detachment and suffering are presented as requirements for the purification and illumination of the soul. John describes the “dark night of the soul” as “an inflowing of God into the soul, which purges it from its ignorances and imperfections, habitual, natural and spiritual, and which is called by contemplatives “infused contemplation, or mystical theology.” The phrase “dark night of the soul” has become a reference to the state of intense personal spiritual struggle, including the experience of utter hopelessness and isolation. Trained by Jesuits and thoroughly familiar with the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, John brought Scholastic theology and philosophy to his poetic genius. He is critically acclaimed as one of the greatest poets of the Spanish Renaissance, as well as one of the greatest Western authorities on mysticism. Numerous miracles and marvels are recorded concerning John, whom Teresa of Avila called “one of the purest souls in the Church of God.” When John was on his deathbed, he predicted he would be with God by midnight—and he died at that hour, holding his crucifix and saying, “Into Thy hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.” The room was filled with a sweet perfume, and a sparkling sphere of light “like that of the sun, moon and stars together” shone above the bed. A triple crown of light seemed to encircle the dead saint’s head. John once reportedly was found levitating in the chapel with his head touching the ceiling, having been lifted up during prayer. Two stories are told of his miraculous rescues from drowning. Both incidents occurred in boyhood. When he was five, he fell into a lagoon while playing and sank to the bottom. There he saw a beautiful lady who stretched out her hand, but he was afraid to grasp it because his own hand was muddy. He floated to the surface and was rescued by a peasant with a pole. In the second incident, he fell into a well but did not sink. He remained calm and held onto a rope, and was pulled to safety. Throughout his life, he credited both rescues to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mary rescued him on another occasion in his monk’s cell. Construction work caused a wall of the monastery to fall on his cell. John was assumed to be crushed to death, but he was found standing in a corner unharmed. He said Mary had covered him with her white mantle to protect him from the falling debris. After his death, he was entombed beneath the floor of the church at Ubeda. Several nights later, a bright light was seen radiating from the spot. Nine months later, his tomb was opened upon a legal order obtained by Dona Ana de Pensacola, who wished to remove his bones to a house she had established for John in Segovia. The saint’s body was found incorrupt and smelling of a sweet fragrance. The body was covered with lime and reburied. The tomb was opened again nine months later, but the body was still incorrupt. Three fingers of the right hand were cut off, and blood issued forth as though from a living person. The body was taken to Segovia, and en route smelled so strongly of perfume that it drew the attention of passersby. In Segovia, thousands flocked to see it for eight days, before its enshrinement in a reliquary of marble and bronze. The incorrupt body was examined in 1859, 1909, 1926 and 1955.